The Horn Of Africa States: Turkey In The Region – OpEd


The strategic significance of the region has always been important for major economies and powers of the world from Alexandrine times to the Romans to Islam and to the European era. The countries of the East from Persia to India, and to China have also always marked the importance of its maritime space. In the present era, it is not only its adjacence to one of the most important trade routes of the world, the Suez Canal/Indian Ocean waterway with its major chokepoint  the Bab El Mandab, but also its security and its economic profile that add to its value and hence interest of many major and regional powers both close and distant. Türkiye is one of those countries that are involved in the region and whose interest appears evolving and rising both on the security and economic fronts. It is the subject of this article, wherein we shall review Türkiye’s growing interest and presence in the region.

Many observers were surprised at President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s first visit to Mogadishu, Somalia in 2011 with all his family members, at a time when Mogadishu was a no-go place for the executive head of any government. He earned a historical great respect from Somalis for all times to come. There were speculations then of a neo-Ottoman agenda on the region and the Islamic world but what the visit was not only good for Somalia and its people, but it also exposed the poverty of the “paycheck diplomacy” of many “brotherly” nations towards Somalia and Somalis.

After a decade and some years, the relations between Somalia and Türkiye still remains strong as was manifested by Somalia’s run to safety when its neighbor Ethiopia signed an illegal MoU with one of its regions and Türkiye did not disappoint it either. A defense deal was signed between the two countries and Somalia, for the first time in over three decades, appears to have found a security for its vast maritime space (Circa 832K sq. km), which is larger than its terrestrial space (Circa 638K sq. km).

This has certainly irked many countries, some of them powerful who were exploiting and stealing Somalia’s maritime resources and dumping waste there. They now have to be careful not to clash with a major regional power such as Türkiye represents. Ethiopia which was keen on implementing the project of the MoU had to go back to its books and recalculate its strategies. So far it is keeping silent on the matter, but it has not understood yet that seeking access to a sea the way it envisages is wrong and against international law. No country can invade another country and take its territory under present UN, international and African Union rules. Ethiopia is not content with being landlocked which is its misfortune, but it is, and it should learn to live with it. Every country has advantages and disadvantages like some people are short while others are tall, some are powerful while others are weak. It is the way of nature. No one has everything one desires at one’s fingers.

There are still those who believe that Türkiye will not fulfill its obligations under the Defense agreement between the two countries and they are mostly those who may have wished to keep Somalia weak and defenseless. But Türkiye is not a country that goes into agreements and does not keep their end of the bargain. It is a country that once ruled most of the known world and has a deep understanding of what it is getting into. Türkiye is not new to the region for it was present in the region during the old Ottoman days and worked with the Somali Sultanates of the time including the Adal and the Ajuran Sultanates. There is, therefore, a historical connection and Somalis, who are generally aloof and hold their chin up, respect and admire Türkiye and its people.

Türkiye is a trading nation and has already developed growing trade relations with the region. Its exports to Somalia stood at US$ 386 MM in 2022, rising 25.2% from US$ 896 K in 1995 according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), an online data visualization and distribution platform focused on the geography and dynamics of economic activities. It also reported that imports from Somalia stood at US$ 2.5 MM in 2022 compared to US$ 795K in 1995, a growth of 4.5%. The OEC also reported that Türkiye exports to Ethiopia in 2022 stood at US$ 357 MM compared to 14.4 MM in 1995 representing a growth of 12.6%, while its imports from Ethiopia in 2022 stood at US$ 24.4 MM compared to US$ 14.4 MM representing an 11.7% growth. Djibouti trade levels with Türkiye also evolved and registered Turkish exports of US$ 5.5 MM in 2022 compared to US$ 5.4 MM in 2003, a growth of 1.8%, while Turkish imports from Djibouti grew from US$ 123K in 2003 to US$ 1.1 MM in 2022 representing a growth of 870.7%. Eritrea remained out of the orbit of Türkiye. It mostly trades with Saudi Arabia with some minimal trade with the UAE and Qatar. Generally, however, there is limited economic information on the country.

The trade volumes between the region and Türkiye remain small but certainly it points to a growing direction and is currently hampered only by the region’s involvement with its many multifaceted conflicts. Should the region settle down, with a big question mark, and start working on the economic front, the trade volume between the two parties would significantly rise. Türkiye also uses the region as an entry gate into Africa where since 2011, Türkiye’s relations with Africa has evolved. In the last decade alone, Türkiye held three summits hosting African leaders and the last was on December 16 -18, 2021. The interest in the continent is its natural resources both organic and inorganic. These include among others oil and gas, uranium, gold, platinum, chrome, gold and diamonds. The continent also produces palm oil, coffee, tea, cacao, sugar, and vanilla, which are important raw materials for many industries.

The recent defense agreement between Somalia and Türkiye would appear to be a test on how far the relationship would go. Many sceptics note that Türkiye would not involve itself in defending Somalia and hence belittle the nature of the accord. On the contrary, the very presence of Türkiye and the hardy Somali warrior, some seventy million of them, spread across the globe, is a natural deterrent to any attempts by Ethiopia or any other party to test the agreement. The illegality of the MoU and the possible involvement of non-regional parties in the conflict and hence a possible spread of war beyond the original perimeters, is another deterrent, as this would become an opener of a gate to hell in the region which might end in the breakup of Ethiopia into a number of new countries (Tigray, Amhara, Oromia, Sidama, Afar, Somali, etc.) Yugoslavia style, more than a breakup of Somalia. The scope of the agreement is not, therefore, limited but wider than some sceptics believe.

One should not rule out that Türkiye does not have interests in the region. They do like many other countries. The difference is that Türkiye unlike many “paycheck diplomats” plays fair and square and keeps its end of a bargain. They do not fold up and close hospitals because a certain policy was not to their liking. Türkiye knows that countries are independent and make policies that meet their needs and their possibilities. They certainly are not opportunistic or disruptive. Türkiye interest is part of its long-term strategy of the 21st century, which involves not only building a powerful economy but also an equally powerful security apparatus on earth, space and maritime spheres. This would certainly involve developing strong relations with Turkic, Muslim and other countries at elevated levels.  The Horn of Africa States is one of the regions where Türkiye needs to establish long lasting relations at both security and economic sectors.

It is certain that the relationship between Türkiye and Somalia is strong, and both find themselves having found a good partner. The relationship is expected to grow and would have enormous value not only for Somalia which has found a powerful ally but also for Türkiye which has found for itself a new space to develop both economies in the fishing, mining and agricultural sectors of Somalia. There may also be room for Aerospatiale development possibilities. 

Dr. Suleiman Walhad

Dr. Suleiman Walhad writes on the Horn of Africa economies and politics. He can be reached at [email protected].

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